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For the week of August 23 through 29, 2000

Fires hit closer to home

Sawtooth Valley could be in danger from Trail Creek fire


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

Nearby wildfires near Atlanta and in the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River drainage are reminders that the Wood River and Sawtooth valleys are not immune to wildfires this summer, despite their clean record thus far.

Smoke from the Trail Creek Fire near Atlanta has hovered over the Wood River Valley for the past week. Should wind and weather take a turn for the worst, the fire could spread into the Sawtooth Wilderness or even into the Sawtooth Valley. Express photo by Willy Cook

Ashes cast off from the roaring fire, which burned four Atlanta-area homes over the weekend, have been falling on Alturas Lake and Smiley Creek at the southern end of the Sawtooth Valley for the past week, and smoke has inundated the Wood River Valley on several occasions.

The ashes falling in the southern Sawtooth Valley could be the first indication of one of the directions the fire may go if wind and weather refuse to cooperate with over 600 firefighters, eight helicopters and 10 fire engines working to tame the 22,900-acre blaze. The fire is primarily moving to the southwest, however.

The blaze, called the Trail Creek Fire, has charred over 30 square miles of landscape.

According to Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA) deputy area ranger Becky Nourse, the Sawtooth Valley has been inundated with smoke from the Trail Creek Fire, which is about 15 miles as the crow flies from Smiley Creek.

"Right now we can’t even see the mountains," Nourse said via telephone Monday as she peered from her Stanley Ranger Station office. "It’s definitely a concern."

Nourse said there is a mountain pass between Atlanta and Alturas Lake Creek, which funnels into the Sawtooth Valley.

"If it starts making it to that part, we’ll get a lot more concerned," she said.

Yesterday the fire was most active on its western front, in the Yuba River and James Creek drainages, but winds had blown embers across the southern border of the Sawtooth Wilderness Area, and spot fires resulted.

The fire has been creeping very slowly to the northeast and southeast.

To the southeast, the fire had about one mile to travel in order to clear a high ridgeline and then enter the Willow Creek drainage, which would be a step closer to Dollarhide Summit and a Big Wood River tributary, Warm Springs Creek.

To the northeast, the fire was stalled on some rocky terrain yesterday, but if it started to move, the Sawtooth Wilderness Area and, ultimately, Alturas Lake and Smiley Creek could be in jeopardy, Nourse said.

Since it ignited last Wednesday morning, most likely from a lightning strike that smoldered for a day or two, the fire has burned on the border between the Sawtooth and Boise national forests.

Boise National Forest fire information officer Venetia Gempler said in an interview that the fire is expected to remain most active along the west and southwest fire lines.

"But it’s creeping northwest, too," she said. "It’s real rocky to the northwest, so they’re not as concerned about that area."

The fire is still 40 air miles from Ketchum, and the likelihood of it advancing over several rivers and high mountain ridges into the Warm Springs Creek drainage is unlikely, Gempler said.

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The Rankin Creek Fire, burning along the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River drainage about 10 miles east of Stanley has now consumed 6,500 acres of forest.

According to a National Forest fire report, firefighters made good progress trying to contain the fire over the weekend.

Nearly 600 firefighters, 22 fire engines and three helicopters worked to douse the flames there and were aided by cooler temperatures and higher humidity Sunday.

"Fire behavior was moderate [yesterday]," according to the report.

The most active part of the blaze was on the northeast end, where the fire backed down Bonanza Peak into Adair Creek.

Crews set up and maintained sprinkler systems in the ghost town of Custer and provided structure protection for the nearby Grouse Creek Mine—a now-closed gold mine.

According to Sawtooth National Forest supervisor Bill LeVere, the forest’s firefighters are all over the western United States fighting blazes.

However, he said, several engines and firefighters are on reserve to fight new flare-ups.

"The priority is on initial attack," he said. "We always keep some forces handy to fight any new starts of fire. The easiest to put out, of course, is when they just start."

Early this week, 28 fires burned across Idaho, covering over 600,000 acres.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, there have been 69,558 wildfires this year burning over five million acres.

 

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